What is Koshu of Japan and which are the best ones to try?
The distinctive grape of Japan, at first glance, Koshu seems full of contradictions. Though widely regarded as indigenous, vinifera plays no ancient role in the country, so its origins lie elsewhere; fashionable now as a dry white wine, it was until recently usually sweet; and, for a variety so famously thick-skinned, it is remarkably delicate in character.
As anyone who has been there will know, the Japanese are immensely proud of Koshu. Descended from the grapes carried along the Silk Road a thousand years ago, the variety is a natural hybrid, the lovechild of a yet-to-be identified European variety of vitis vinifera and an unknown Asian vitis partner. Traditionally a table grape, its use in wine began just 130 years ago.
In keeping with Japan’s cherry blossom culture, Koshu is pretty in pink, with its distinctive, plump, round berries, those thick skins helping resist disease in the humid, damp conditions, with rainfall averaging between 800 and 1000 millimetres a year. As a result, the variety is usually planted on a pergola system, though vertical shoot positioning has more recently been successfully trialled.
The majority of Koshu comes from the central wine region of Yamanashi, in the foothills of Mount Fuji, Japan’s icon and a World Heritage site.
Sometimes likened to Assyrtiko, Muscadet or Hunter Valley Semillon (the latter being the closest, in my opinion), Koshu offers a quality a little closer to Sake in aromatics, flavour profile and polished texture.
a food culture to die for
For the uninitiated, Japan has a food culture to die for. I visited the country five years ago and the pairings of its food and wine left an indelible impression.
The fine dining establishments are world renowned, but even at the level of cheap and cheerful street food or chain eateries, standards are uniformly very high – I shudder to think what a visitor from Japan might make of some of our equivalents, a Garfunkel’s or a Chicken Cottage.
As with most varieties closely identified with a specific country or region, Koshu comes into its own when paired with its culinary bedfellows, from sushi and sashimi to teriyaki, yakitori or tempura, where the crisp acidity, delicate fruit and signature savoury streak all play their complementary roles.
“It is uniquely Japanese, but has only really started to be internationally recognised as an interesting variety in the last ten years or so,” says Koshu of Japan masterclass host, Ronan Sayburn MS, “the flavours are delicate, very light and I always find this rice water quality, starchy, definitely something akin to Sake.”
“The nose is quite muted, but the palate is very precise, the acidity quite soft, elegant and well integrated with the fruit,” says co-host Toru Takamatsu MS, “in Japanese cuisine, it pairs best with appetisers, something quite delicate, not too heavy.”
Koshu is naturally productive, so a focus on quality has resulted in lower yields and better management of the canopy, with seemingly no expense or effort spared, to the extent that miniature ‘rain coats’ are placed over individual bunches to protect them from the elements. “It just strikes me as a very Japanese thing to do,” according to Sayburn, “I don’t think you’d find someone doing that in Bordeaux.”
“One of the things that strikes you most about Japan is the attention to detail, the artisanal attitude, that pursuit of excellence,” he adds, “from the man who has made tempura for 40 years but still feels he needs to perfect it, to the people who have dedicated their lives to neatly raking gravel.”
Koshu’s magnificent seven:
I have listed a stockist, where I could find one.
Suntory, Tomi no Oka, Premium Koshu, 2019 (no UK stockist), aged in stainless steel, no malolactic, a lightly floral nose, with subtle melon and peach skin to follow. Soft acidity, matched by gentle fruit.
Grace, Hishiyama Vineyard, Private Reserve Koshu, 2019 (£20.80 at Vinum) with delicate citrus blossom on the nose, there’s zesty grapefruit and fennel, with a slightly smoky, mezcal note and a nutty finish.
Grace, Cuvée Misawa, Akeno, Koshu, 2019 (no UK stockist), with blossom and a rice water note to the nose, yellow plums and yuzu, the texture is velvety, there’s subtle tension and real elegance.
Chateau Mercian, Iwade, Koshu Kiiroka Cuvée Ueno R133, 2019 (no UK stockist for this specific wine, though try All About Wine for others from Chateau Mercian), an “experimental wine” from Chateau Mercian, R133 refers to the tank number, there’s Seville orange, passionfruit acidity, freshness, precision and savoury depth.
Suntory, Tomi no Oka, Koshu, 2019 (no UK stockist), with 16% matured in used French oak, there’s a whiff of Sake on the nose, blossom, passionfruit and grapefruit, plump yellow plums and umami, especially on the finish.
Manns Wines, Solaris, Yamanashi Koshu Sur Lie (no UK stockist), with seven months on its lees, a reductive note to the nose, with lime zest, green apple and panko breadcrumbs, there’s a delicate tannic feel to the texture. Like an elevated Muscadet.
Chateau Mercian, Fuefuki, Koshu Gris de Gris 2019 (£16.99 at All About Wine), an orange wine, but a subtle one, the grapes spend three weeks on skins in stainless steel, then the wine spends 8 months in used oak. With rose petal, ripe apricots, apple compote, textural charm and a smooth, savoury finish, it’s about as close to crowd-pleasing as orange wine gets.
This piece was commissioned by and originally published in The Buyer